The New Testament in Art
Ever since the Byzantine Church used paintings to connect man with God, Christianity has been one of the richest sources of subject matter for artists. In the New Testament can be discovered the foundations of many of the stories, laws, and phrases that blend into the mix of everyday life. From the miracles of Christ to the Revelation of the Last Judgment, painters from the medieval era to the dawn of Modernism have turned to the Bible as a primary source of human drama, salvation, and hope.
Stage 1John the Baptist
Although the New Testament is largely an account of the birth, preaching, miracles, and martyrdom of Jesus Christ, the Biblical narrative of the Son of God is preceded by the birth of another major figure. John the Baptist’s childhood features only in the Gospel of Luke, and makes no mention of his friendship with the infant Jesus. Artists throughout the ages, however, have explored and imagined the pair as toddlers, lost in a world of innocence and naivety while the Virgin Mary looks on, aware of at least one of the pair’s divine path. John the Baptist was certainly a pioneering, charismatic individual, and is presented as such in Leonardo’s dynamic depiction. It is generally agreed that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist’s teaching, with John baptizing Jesus, and ‘preparing the way’ for his later teachings. Andrea Solari’s striking painting describes the ultimate end of John the Baptist; killed on the whim of a Salome, the daughter of Herod.
Stage 2Nativity: The Birth of Jesus
The march to Bethlehem, a stable; the story of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus, is well known. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, a Rococo painter before the French Revolution, frames the scene in a typically grand and ornate style. Housed in the traditional setting, a stable, the onlookers marvel at the divine light emanating from the infant Christ. In later years, painters would stress the humble origins of the birth, the run-down grotto, and the tired and ragged parents, but not Pierre. James Jacques Joseph Tissot drew upon the influential Orientalist style to imagine the Biblical Magi; the three wise men, as Arabic sheikhs traversing the desert plains in anticipation of meeting the Son of God. The sons of the soil, the more earthy residents of his land also visited the infant Jesus. William Brassey Hole depicts the annunciation to the shepherds in a similar way to Pierre’s, but with the shepherds gazing towards the divine apparition that had told them of the good news.
Stage 3Flight to Egypt
Almost as soon as the Magi had given their gifts and departed, the new parents, Mary and Joseph, and the infant Christ, were forced to flee to Egypt. In an ominous echo of the dangers that led to Moses being floated down the Nile, King Herod decided to slaughter all of the recently born babies in the area after hearing of the miraculous birth. As exile and migration is such key theme in both the Old and the New Testaments, artists eager to capture the pain of departure and the desolation of exile have depicted the Flight into Egypt countless times. George Hitchcock’s somewhat dreamy scene focuses on the expanse of scrubland that the family first traverse, while Luc-Olivier Merson stages his scene at the point of arrival. Beneath the Sphinx the weary travellers collapse, the expanse of desert echoing their sense of despair. An early Caravaggio painting, however, takes the opportunity to connect this moment of repose and contemplation to the artist’s own time. The presence of the violin and the sheet music link the drama of Jesus’ early childhood to the everyday experiences of those of Caravaggio’s time.
Stage 4Massacre of the Innocents
What followed King Herod’s decision to murder all of the recently-born babies in his realm is know as the Massacre of the Innocents, and is certainly one of the most brutal and sorrowful episodes in the New Testament. The story was popular with painters from the Early Renaissance to the Rococo era, who liked to use the sense of terror, the atrocious bloodshed, and sense of panic to experiment with new ways of depicting space, movement, and expressive force. Peter Paul Rubens’ painting is an example of this swirling sense of panic that seems curiously pleasing to the eye due to the artist’s clever composition and color schema. Nicolas Poussin’s interpretation, on the other hand, owes more to the dramatic flair of Caravaggio. All eyes are drawn to the desperation on the face of the mother, and the contorted physical battle between the two protagonists. Léon Cogniet’s 1824 interpretation is more thoughtful still, with the haunting gesture between mother and child amplified by the pallor of grey cast across both faces. The viewer can only hope their story ended well.
Stage 5Early Life of Jesus
The early life of Jesus is barely mentioned in the accounts of his preachings. Following their self-exile and return, the family of Mary and Jospeh settled in Nazareth, returning to normality and living out the next few decades, it seems, in relative normalcy. William Charles Thomas Dobson depicts Jesus being held, somewhat awkwardly, by his father, still doting on his earthly guardian well into his teens. As he grew up and met likeminded thinkers, Jesus was eventually baptized by John the Baptist, in a new ritual designed to wash away sins. El Greco, is his own unique manner, describes the event as a symphony of swirling, stylized forms that reach towards the heavens in a graceful, upward ascent. One of the first times Jesus was forced to test his mettle was in this period immediately after his Baptism, where he fasted for forty days and nights in the deserts of Judea. His strength and faith was repeatedly tested by the devil, and having come through this ordeal, was imbued with the confidence to face fresh challenges.
Stage 6Jesus and the Disciples
The gathering of his most dedicated followers, known as the Calling of the Disciples, began with Jesus engaging in a miraculous show of divine influence. After preaching to a small crowd, Jesus walked along the water by the lake of Gennesaret and struck up a conversation with some fishermen. The Renaissance painter Konrad Witz, in a refined and austere style, depicts the moment when Jesus enquired into their daily catch. Upon hearing of their bad luck, he told them to cast their nets once more into the lake, and upon so doing, their nets bulged with fish. This miracle earned Jesus three of his followers who would become essential figures in the New Testament story: Peter, James, Andrew and John. Bernardo Strozzi depicts the same event but utterly omits the river, a boat, or any fish. His effort relies more on beckoning his future followers into a relationship of trust. Caravaggio, in one of his most famous canvases, The Calling of St. Matthew, portrays the calling of a tax collector who was commanded by Jesus to follow him. The artist unravels the story, setting the scene in a darkened tavern of sin illuminated by the light of Christ.
Stage 7Sermon on the Mount
The Calling of Matthew was an important moment in the early adult life of Jesus Christ. Matthew would later write the Gospel of Matthew, his account of the life and trials they shared, which would contain some of the most important sayings and sermons related to Jesus’ teachings. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most important and frequently recited speeches, giving voice to so many of the phrases so closely associated with the New Testament. Claude Lorrain, a pioneering painter in the landscape tradition, naturally gives precedence to the rolling landscape rather than the sermon itself. Seemingly set in Lorrain’s native France rather than Biblical Palestine, the painting reminds the viewer of the humble origins and small audiences that Jesus’ sermons would receive. Both Odilon Redon and Bela Onodi take the event as a gateway to a more modern way of thinking about the spread of knowledge, ethics, and values, stripping down the human form to its bare elements and letting the pulsating message of light and hope pervade the frame.
Stage 8Jesus in the Storm
As Jesus’ ministry grew, so did the frequency of his miracles. These miraculous events, occasionally calming the natural world, other times violating its laws, have always been a favorite source material for painters. Perhaps the most well known of Rembrandt’s canvases, yet tragically a painting stolen and lost since 1990, depicts one such miracle. The calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee features in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew, and recounts the moment that Jesus commanded the wind and the waves be stilled. His followers, for which he was up to that point merely a teacher, were awestruck by Jesus’ divine powers over nature. Painted four centuries apart, Jan The Elder Brueghel and Eugene Delacroix’s interpretations of the scene both focus on the sublime, fearsome, and furious power of the storm rather than the human drama aboard the ship.
Stage 9Feeding the 5000
The feeding of the five thousand, often referred to as the miracle of the loaves and fishes, occurred after the death of John the Baptist. Shaken by the event, Jesus retired to the country, to walk, let his mind roam, and mourn the death. The crowd that followed him amounted to thousands, such was his growing influence, and as night fell they realized they had neglected to bring food. Pedro Orrente’s Mannerist painting of the story displays the moment the multitude of followers were divided into groups of 50, after which Jesus took stock of the little food they had with them; a few loaves of bread and two fishes. Tintoretto’s Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes reveals the moment Jesus offered the food up to heaven and managed to divide it between the five thousand, with everyone leaving with a full stomach. Due to its simplicity, ethic of sharing, and rationing whatever the community can offer, the feeding of the five thousand is often taught to children as a lesson of the benefits of community cohesion.
Stage 10Raising Lazarus
Certainly the most spectacular and memorable of Jesus’ miracles is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. One of Jesus’ most beloved followers, Lazarus had fallen ill and the disciples set off to tend to him in his nearby village. Yet Jesus decided to wait, so that God may be satisfied that his plan was not interrupted. By the time they arrived Lazarus had died and been entombed. Weeping for the loss of his friend and disciple, Jesus commanded that the stone that walled his grave be removed. Despite the smell of death, a man emerged from the tomb and rose from the grave. Rembrandt’s interpretation is slightly more emotionally charged that much of his later work, while Vincent Van Gogh, in one of his rare Biblical paintings, takes Rembrandt’s version and transforms it into a vision of rustic, peasant beauty. Naturally, Carvaggio’s cinematic flair focuses on the limp body and the lifeless hands caught between the magic of life and the cold clutch of the grave.
Stage 11Entry Into Jerusalem
Having amassed a significant following, the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem marks the final chapter in the life of Christ before the Last Supper, his trial, and his crucifixion. Benjamin Robert Haydon’s painting of the moment Jesus enters the city focuses, as does the Christian feast of Palm Sunday, on the welcome given by both his disciples and the citizens of Jerusalem. In John Martin’s immense vision of the entrance, the laying of palms in front of Jesus, and the softening the seat of his donkey with cloaks are reduced to the status of mere detail. More important for the artist is the sheer size and grandeur of the city itself, which seems to envelop the faithful and swallow them whole. Wilhelm Morgner’s Expressionist painting of the scene gives a completely different impression, focusing instead on the raw emotional charge of this seismic religious event.
Stage 12The Last Supper
Following the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and a scandal at the Temple that saw Jesus overturn the tables of moneylenders, who had set up shop in the holy forecourt, came the most poignant and ominous moment in the entire life of Christ. For his final meal, Jesus and his disciples, all practicing Jews, celebrated the meal of Passover. It was here that the Eucharist began, the ritual that is followed to this day where Christians break bread and drink wine as surrogates for the body and the blood of Christ. Sensing the end of his life was nigh; Jesus bid his farewells and washed the feet of his disciples as a sign of humility and respect. Both El Greco and Leonardo Da Vinci focus on the dynamic unity of the congregation, their conflicting roles in what was to come, and the prediction of both Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. An event brimming with intrigue, sorrow, and bravery, The Last Supper is a pivotal moment in the New Testament story.
Stage 13The Betrayal
Following Jesus’ arrest and imprisonment, passersby accused the disciple Peter of being a follower of the man declared an enemy of the peace. Guercino’s The Betrayal of Christ follows the action as Jesus is led away by Roman centurions, laughing and mocking the man who would soon undergo all of the tortures, trials, and tribulations that Ancient Rome could throw at him. Soon after, Peter fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy at the Last Supper and denied any knowledge of the man. Caravaggio’s painting masterfully balances dramatic light and shade to focus on the psychological drama unfolding in Peter’s mind. Theologians and the faithful have long argued over the reason why Judas ultimately betrayed Jesus. Some argue it was for money, which Rembrandt shows being returned in a fit of guilt, while others argue he had been preordained by fate to betray Jesus as part of God’s plan.
Stage 14The Trial
Immediately following his arrest Jesus is bought before Caiaphas, the high priest of the Jewish Temple. After a brief interrogation, Christ admits to considering himself the Son of God, and it is decided that he will be tried for blasphemy. Gerrit Van Honthorst skillfully depicts this interrogation in the style of Caravaggio, with a dramatic interplay of light and shade. The calm, benevolent look of Jesus meets that of a more humanized version of the high priest than many interpretations take. After all, Caiaphas, like Jesus, was merely a man protecting his own faith. After Jesus’ interrogation and a series of savage beatings he was put before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. This encounter between these two figures has sown the seed of many a notable literary and artistic interpretation. Jacek Malczewski’s canvas strikes a balance between naturalism and outright caricature, and casts the Roman as a preening, ignorant poser. Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge’s painting conforms more closely to some of the more recent personifications of Pilate. Despite being responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, Pilate is depicted as thoughtful but arrogant, bound to his office yet strangely sympathetic to Christ; in short, a wealth of contradictions for artistic minds to interpret.
What happened next is engrained on the imagination of many, it having been reproduced in popular culture, devotional objects, and religious teaching. Arguably the most striking and imaginative of all Christian painters, Francisco De Zurbaran’s St Luke as a painter before Christ on the Cross, provides a powerful allegory of the relationship artists have had with the Crucifixion. St Luke is portrayed at the base of the cross, possibly with Zurbaran painting himself into the figure as a self-portrait, admiring and contemplating the presence of Jesus as if it were an aesthetic object. It’s a troubling concept, but one which is relevant to the way in which the Cross has become a symbol for Christianity itself. John Martin’s canvas focuses on the small mount of Calvary where the crucifixion took place. Martin was a lifelong purveyor of images of the Sublime, that is, the awesome and fearsome powers of nature. His Crucifixion scene focuses on the thunder and lightning storm that erupted after Jesus breathed his last.
One of the most captivating paintings in the entire New Testament canon is one that depicts the moment the news of Christ’s resurrection reached the disciples Peter and John. Jesus does even feature in the painting, but the tightly clasped hands and dynamic onward movement of the pair perfectly encapsulates the sense of anticipation, anxiety, and wonder at the news that could not possibly be true. Eugene Burnand’s 1898 masterpiece is a triumph of Biblical painting. With its sense of humility and restraint it perfectly sums up this miraculous moment in Christian history. El Greco’s Resurrection is slightly less reserved, but what it lacks in subtlety it more than makes up with its utterly unique visual style. With unparalleled dynamism and vigor, the Resurrection is portrayed as a visual allegory of almost choreographic expressive movement, like the climax of a ballet or dance sequence. Finally, Caravaggio’s iconic work portrays the action immediately following the Resurrection, when the doubting disciple Thomas is encouraged to stick his figures in the gaping wound to prove to himself the miracle of Christ’s resurrection.
Stage 17Supper at Emmaus
Caravaggio, always eager to seize upon Biblical subjects rich in dramatic tension to test his ingenious techniques of expressive lighting, chose to paint the scene immediately following the prodding fingers of doubting Thomas. Following the crucifixion and entombment of Jesus, two former disciples were walking to a village outside of Jerusalem. Having heard a rumor that the tomb of Jesus was discovered empty, they find themselves sitting down to eat with a strangely familiar stranger. Caravaggio captures the moment that the followers recognize the face of Christ, their surprise and astonishment certain to send a teetering bowl of fruit crashing to the floor. Rembrandt’s version is profoundly humanistic and revelatory, with the event cast in the glow of an ethereal and heavenly light. Diego Velazquez offers an entirely different and refreshing depiction. His Kitchen Scene with the Supper in Emmaus was often thought to be a moving depiction of a domestic worker not usually the subject of a work of art, taken out of history and into the eye of the viewer. It wasn’t until the early twentieth-century that a cleaning of the painting revealed a representation of the Supper at Emmaus on the right hand side, making the resurrection of this humble, hardworking figure even more touching.
The Ascension of Jesus to heaven is one of the most popular images of the New Testament, decorating walls, ceilings, and altars of Churches across the globe. After forty days following the Resurrection, Jesus rose to heaven in the presence of his remaining eleven apostles, and promised to return again. Anton Raphael Mengs Neoclassical interpretation combines elements of the Renaissance Mannerist style and recent studies of Classical sculpture. Mengs’ Neoclassical style would be exported to the New World of South America and would be closely associated with the iconography of Latin-American Christianity. As usual, El Greco’s color scheme, figurative postures, and expressive drama is a law unto itself, and pictures God Himself taking Jesus into his arms and lifting him above the clouds. The only close correlative to El Greco’s dreamy, ethereal vision is a particularly stirring evocation by Rembrandt, which allows an ever-widening arch of heavenly light to illuminate the misery and darkness of the earth.
Stage 19The Conversion of Paul
As the apostles continued their mortal lives after the ascension of Jesus, little did they know that a man who had neither known Jesus during his lifetime nor heard his teachings, and even persecuted the early followers of Christ, would become one of the most important figures in spreading early Christianity. On the road to Damascus, Paul experienced a divine revelation, a spasm of bodily seizure that propelled him from his horse. He heard a disembodied voice, as did his fellow travellers, and a blinding light showed him the true path. Just as theologians argue about the nature of the sound, the light, and the seizure that gripped him, so too have artists enjoyed adding their own voice by interpreting this seismic event. Taddeo Zuccari’s version is a sumptuous Mannerist vision of balance, harmony, and narrative logic. Lodovico Carracci’s Conversion of St Paul pays more attention to the bucking horse and the distinctly everyday surroundings of the conversion. Finally, Caravaggio’s version is, as ever, bathed in the light of human drama and revelation. Caravaggio’s Paul is utterly overcome, in a naturalistic gesture that seems to be a gesture of both defense and joy.
The final book of the New Testament deals with the Revelations of the Second Coming promised by Jesus upon his ascension. It foretells the apocalyptic end of days, much of which generations of Christians would attempt to put into motion themselves to speed up the Second Coming. Certainly, artists have enjoyed turning their hands to the prophecies of the Book of Revelations more than possibly any other section of the Biblical canon. The apocalypse was a favorite subject for Romantic painter John Martin, who used his far-ranging studies into the unstoppable power of nature to create a scene of almost-unimaginable destruction. Hieronymous Bosch, the fifteenth century prophet of the macabre and the gruesome, imagined the ascent of those judged fit to enter heaven after the Second Coming. Their numbers are quite literally funneled through an opening in the gloom that engulfs the earth. Hans Memling, like many artists from the medieval era onwards, was commissioned to decorate an altarpiece with an interpretation of the Last Judgment, creating a harrowing yet harmonious vision of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.